Xu Xi is in the habit of dividing her time between New York, Hong Kong and, well, the world, and has long advocated a “transnational approach” to literature. Sequestered in upstate New York during the pandemic, she hasn’t found adapting to sedentary life easy. And, she says, she longs for Southeast Asia.
“Although I was born in Hong Kong, I travelled for years on an Indonesian passport, which was funny because I couldn’t speak the language. I decided to address that in 2018 and started studying Bahasa Indonesia in Yogyakarta. During the lockdown I have been doing my classes online. If I make a trip [back to Indonesia] I’ll do it via Singapore and Malaysia, places I love.”
Until that is feasible, Xu will be wallowing in regional fiction.
“Over decades travelling, I saw the changes [in Southeast Asia] and I’m mostly reading novels that are set in those transformative moments. I’ve been reading Tash Aw’s We, the Survivors (2019). He’s interesting because he writes not just about the glamorous world of the transnational but of the ordinary world of Malaysians. He describes place, geography and background very well, so you get lost in this world. Even though he’s based in London, he has a kind of Southeast Asian sensibility, he shows us […] there are a lot of worlds woven into it. He doesn’t just describe the region, he actually makes you feel it. You get inside the characters and that’s why I feel like I’m there with him.”